Cultural Diversity & Leadership

Cherish the Differences

By Caio de Azevedo, Consultant /

Meeting a Chilean colleague at a reunion taking place in Oslo, who has grown up in Switzerland, studied in the United States, did an exchange year in Japan, and is now working for a German company based in Dubai is no longer surprising. In the last century, the world has experienced an intensification of globalization, which has now reached a point of no return with the omnipresence of internet and its consequent ease of communication. Not surprisingly, the associated changing demographic patterns have now long been a topic in organizations, and managing cultural diversity is seen today as a major responsibility in leadership roles. Indeed, to remain competitive and even be able to interact with contemporaneity, leaders and organizations must provide themselves with the means to take profit of this (not so) new reality of the Human Capital. It remains a major challenge within the responsibilities of contemporary leaders, but it is above all a source of development for the people and the company.

Indeed, it is important to approach differences as an asset rather than a burden. A broader variety of experiences and approaches supports creativity within a group, and is hence an infinite source of innovative ideas. However, harmonizing a culturally diverse team may not be an easy task… Each one of us carries a backpack full of experiences, values, beliefs, and tradition. Consider the example of the communication etiquette: A German doesn’t understand why an American asks How are you doing? when they meet for the first time (and much less why he or she doesn’t even expect an actual answer!). Neither does an Indian understand our western Could you please? as It is expected from you to do so. Furthermore, many people are still unaware of their own stereotypes and standards. In our communication etiquette example, it is not uncommon for the German to interpret the sympathy of the American as intrusive or fake. In turn, the American (who just expects to hear a conventional How are you doing?) can take the honest answer of the German counterpart (Oh, despite the warm weather today, quite well – thank you! How are you today?) as a surprising intimate reaction. The Indian colleague doesn’t understand the urgency of the request, and sees this typical western formulation as unclear, while the western correspondent thinks he is being rude by providing more clarity to his colleague. And the most impressive of all: these people are pursuing the same goal and do want to harmoniously work together!

To reflect the society within which they and their company are evolving, leaders would definitely profit from linking those cultural differences rather than segregating them. By reflecting and asking ourselves the questions What are my own cultural stereotypes? Are they shared by my counterpart? Am I really understanding and being understood in our exchange? we get to know not only ourselves, but also the other. One way of being open-minded and overcoming our limiting beliefs is to consider how we would like to be received and understood if we were in the shoes of our counterpart. Indeed, empathy is a main ingredient of cultural diversity management.

However, it is essential to remain authentic in such situations, and for a very simple reason: too much adaptation kills diversity – and that’s precisely what we want to avoid! For example, the already mentioned etiquette is part of our identity. Everyone’s individuality and traditions enrich our interactions, and we should cherish them. Being aware of it makes it possible for two identities to interact in a fluent way. Thus, in addition to empathy, organizations and leaders should encourage (self-)awareness. One way of starting our own self-awareness journey is to ask ourselves What part of my identity is different than my counterpart’s? What would be interesting for them to learn from me, as I am learning from them? Humanity is indeed hungry for learning. People are naturally curious about things they don’t know. By positioning ourselves differently within a group, we open space for personal exchange, and thus enable relationships to take place. Why? Because we enjoy ourselves, learn, and remember.

Identity and cultural diversity are intertwined. Although few of us recognize it, everybody needs praise and recognition. Within the context of cultural diversity, this becomes crucial: not praising one’s intimate identity and values may simply block the flow of creativity, motivation, and fulfillment, and the corporate mask will be all you get from your colleagues. Identity is precisely what makes us exotic, and it brings new ideas and energy to our dialogues. Of course, this melting pot can be distracting. In such cases, leaders should stick to their vision, not letting details get on their way, but rather enabling the necessary exchange and profusion of thoughts within the team, and hence enriching the journey towards their goal. Therefore, leaders play a crucial role through their intrinsic ability to impact their teams by encouraging and role-modelling inclusion. They are the ones who enable a bridge between each cultural gem embodied by the members of their teams.

It is a fact: cultural diversity has become the daily bread of organizations. Yes, it comes with potential costs. Yes, its management takes time and energy. But the benefits we will reap are already now worth the path. And now is only a question of attitude – our own, and our counterpart’s.

We wish all our readers a cherished diverse week,
Your Manres Team

References:

Gorbach, A., Dannath-Schuh, J., & Cusumano, F. (2019). Orientation for Leaders: The timeless truths of leadership (1st ed.). Freiburg: Haufe.

Johner, P. (2012). Transforming Leaders: Successful design and implementation of transformation processes within the company (1st ed.). Freiburg: Haufe.

Urech, E. (1998). Speaking Globally: Effective Presentations across International and Cultural Boundaries (1st ed.). Dover: Kogan Page.

Yukl, G. (2013). Leadership in Organizations (8th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Zweifel, T. D. (2003). Culture clash: Managing the Global High-Performance Team (1st ed.). New York: SelectBooks.